NFL Week 12 Winners and Losers

The last Sunday of November had fewer games but as much entertainment compared to prior weeks. Upsets, injuries and comebacks led headlines and will be the focus before December starts. The playoff picture never looked more crowded. It’s time to break down who or what stood out most; positively or negatively.

Winners: Zach Wilson

I personally believe New York Jets rookie quarterback and number two overall pick Zach Wilson shouldn’t be playing the rest of this season, and a leg injury Sunday in Houston warrants that belief. Regardless, his return was everything the Jets wanted and needed.

Wilson’s stats weren’t pretty. He completed 14 passes for 145 yards and an interception. Yet Wilson ran for a touchdown that wound up giving New York the lead. The rookie led critical drives and a double digit comeback after Houston scored two straight touchdowns.

Some weekends the stats are ugly. However, if there’s notable improvement coming back from injuries, quality of play matters more. The Jets don’t have much quality at the quarterback position since a Mike White performance versus Cincinnati but they can feel good when their first round pick has time and isn’t hurt/hit to make the right plays and earn wins.

Tampa Bay’s running game led by Leonard Fournette

It’s easy for fans and analysts to label first round picks either as busts or studs on teams that drafted them. In the case of Leonard Fournette many fans thought the Jacksonville Jaguars jumped early when they drafted him fourth overall in 2017. Labeled as a bust by Jacksonville he was cut in 2020 and then signed to Tampa Bay. He’s been a key piece in the Buccaneer offense and it showed Sunday in Indianapolis.

Fournette scored three touchdowns on 17 carries for 100 yards. Two of the three running touchdowns gave Tampa Bay leads (one at the beginning and the other a game winner). He also caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Brady in the second quarter around the two minute mark, giving the Bucs a brief cushion before the Colts offense scored again.

Fournette solidified his reputation as someone who plays their best in the postseason last year. Discussion after revolved on how he could play better in the regular season. He’s on track for a career high in rushing yards (over half-way to his career high 1,152), has a career high rushing average in a season and is two touchdowns back of his career high (seven, career high is nine).

Throw in Ronald Jones II averaging five yards a run on seven carries and it’s easier to understand why the Colts defense struggled in the second half Sunday. Sometimes Tampa’s offense forces pass plays and forgets the runningback duo on the team solidifies wins in critical games. If coach Bruce Arians wants better play from both offense and defense, giving both Fournette and Jones II more carries is a good start.

Kendrick Bourne

The former 49ers wide receiver needed a fresh start after a less than stellar tenure in the Bay area. When New England signed him last offseason, it was a gamble he could play better than both the team’s wideouts and better than his time on the west coast. That gamble’s paying off.

In Sunday’s home game versus Tennessee, Bourne caught five passes for two touchdowns and 61 yards. Only one pass didn’t reach him, a gradual improvement compared to his high number of dropped passes in San Francisco. His scores either gave New England a lead or cemented a win to rise to the number two seed in the AFC playoff picture.

A few weeks ago yours truly gave Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels notable praise for how he’s developed the Patriots offense this season. Many will say rookie quarterback Mac Jones has benefitted most, but it’s surprisingly Kendrick Bourne, who’s gone from gaffe-prone and a butterfingers joke to a possible number one wideout on a first place team in the AFC East and behind only the Baltimore Ravens in the conference.

Kyle Shanahan

Keeping the topic on San Francisco, coach Kyle Shanahan’s reversed fortune by calling plays on offense and the roster’s getting healthier. The 49ers might salvage their season and clinch a berth in a contested playoff race.

The Minnesota Vikings led early in Santa Clara, CA. but choked away a double digit lead and failed to score at pivotal times in the second half. On offense, quarterback Jimmy Garappolo played his best in the second and third quarters, helping score 27 of the 34 game points. An eye opening performance from depth running back Eli Mitchell eased pressure off Garappolo during those important drives. Mitchell ran for 133 yards averaging almost five yards a carry. The receiver tandem of Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel frustrated Minnesota’s defense. Receiver Jauan Jennings (who was in that fight in Jacksonville on the 21st) scored the game tying touchdown before halftime.

What’s different the last few weeks is coach Shanahan’s play-calling. There aren’t many risks. San Francisco is running the ball, getting Garappolo to throw in easier situations, and using better clock management to tire opposing defenses. A lot of the injured players San Francisco had on injured reserve are easing back into the lineup. From a timeframe of a month and a half, Shanahan’s gone from having a hot seat and conversations on when he’ll be fired to the 49ers possibly stealing second place from their division rival Los Angeles Rams (more on them later). Regardless, San Francisco won’t need a new coach before 2023.

Losers:

Tennessee Titans Defense

If one was told the Titans defense would give up more than 300 yards passing, 100 yards rushing and 36 points (after giving up 59 the past three weeks), there would be surprised looks. That’s what happened Sunday in New England.

Rookie quarterback Mac Jones was almost perfect in a pivotal game deciding who would rise in conference standings. Tennessee’s issues before Sunday were on offense due to injuries, but the defense played better. In New England, the defense couldn’t stop anything.

Jones had all but nine passes complete to whoever was targeted. The Patriots offense scored on all but one possession in the first half (the one was a missed field goal) and punted once late in the third quarter. Tennessee struggled to pressure Jones, sacking the rookie twice. A lack of pass rush combined with multiple turnovers from quarterback Ryan Tannehill gassed out an already exhausted defense.

The Titans now have a bye week. While coach Mike Vrabel has to be relieved the team can catch their breath, it couldn’t be at a worse time when injuries and losses caught up and might doom a chance at a first round bye.

Jalen Reagor

Above in the winners is a player many thought was a bust but wasn’t because coaches didn’t know how to work and develop him to the best of not just his abilities, but the team’s. Outside Fournette’s case, most players wind up busts because they don’t have a chance to turn things around or are scarred from previous failures. They’re considered tragic cases. Yet in some decades/eras, some players are true, no doubt, 100% busts. That’s because they’re awful no matter the coaching or technique. The best case right now is Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jalen Reagor.

It’s rare someone in their second NFL season outside the quarterback position can play terribly every week. The Eagles drafted Reagor over receivers Justin Jefferson (check out last week’s winners and losers), Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III. While two of the three will finish the season with better numbers, one must also ask what happens if Ruggs has better people around him in Philadelphia than in Las Vegas. Perhaps he isn’t in court on manslaughter and DUI charges.

As for Reagor’s on-field play, he’s a solid run-blocker. However he wasn’t drafted for that to be his specialty. On Sunday at the New York Giants down six, Hurts threw two well thrown passes at the sophomore second rounder and he dropped both of them wide open to tie or win the game. Hurts and the offense hadn’t played well in all but three possessions but most would forget if Reagor caught a touchdown. Those drops makes one wonder what Philadelphia saw to draft him in the second round.

Los Angeles Chargers defense

Last week the Los Angeles Chargers’ offense won a shootout against what many thought was a good Pittsburgh Steelers team. Quarterback Justin Herbert did everything possible to secure the win. Some days that won’t happen and the defense has to play better. Coach Brandon Staley’s unit failed Sunday.

Cancelling out the Pat Surtain II’s touchdown return from an interception, you’d think the defense did good limiting the Denver Broncos to 21 points. There were concerns. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was injured after the Broncos scored first with a lower leg injury. While he finished the game, he came back to throw for one touchdown after that first score. Derwin James’ interception was off Drew Lock who played a couple of possessions, and Bridgewater was sacked once despite a talented Los Angeles front seven. Former Charger runningback Melvin Gordon III averaged almost five yards a carry and also scored.

Los Angeles hasn’t done enough to change a game or take advantage of mistakes opposing offenses make unless Herbert and company play well. Coach Staley is defensive oriented who has to do more with the unit. It looked worse earlier when Pittsburgh scored ten points against a young upcoming Cincinnati Bengals defense, seven of which were in garbage time.

The Les Snead-Sean McVay duo

A general manager who prioritized trading for blockbuster players after having a number one pick in 2015 and a head coach touted as “an offensive guru” have become the heads of football’s version of Bozo’s Circus. That’s the best way to describe the Rams’ November.

The offense is a disaster. While it’s possible quarterback Matthew Stafford is dealing with an injury, both he and McVay are handling this poorly. Stafford threw his fifth interception in three games, resulting in a touchdown returned by Green Bay’s defense. The bootleg snaps and rollouts McVay wanted Stafford to throw from has moved to shotgun snaps and under center, killing offensive efficiency. If that’s because of injury, then Stafford isn’t their best chance to win against playoff caliber opponents heading into December.

The offensive line has weaknesses in the middle and gave up two sacks without the Packers blitzing. Only six receivers were targeted by Stafford. Then the trade for Odell Beckham Jr. has added to the problems by disrupting chemistry, probably jeopardizing any chance of a deep run in the playoffs.

The Rams defense was exposed this month in every game. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey doesn’t want to tackle receivers on fourth down. “Game changer” Aaron Donald was neutralized by offensive linemen to the point he choked one Sunday in front of a referee. Stars don’t do that especially when their unit is exposed.

Los Angeles lost a good player in John Johnson, who’s bolstered the Cleveland Browns secondary. This is where Snead’s trades cost the team. In order to win a championship, there must be development on all sides of the ball. Right now the Rams are desperate for more depth because it’s been traded away for star players who can’t play when it matters most or let go because of a low salary cap. Don’t be surprised if this team not only falls behind San Francisco but fizzles out in the playoffs.

NFL Week Eleven Winners and Losers

The eleventh week of the NFL season was as chaotic, strange and confounding as possible. The upsets shocked not just the football world but the playoff picture in both conferences. There’s still a lot to process and breakdown because most fans and analysts didn’t expect so many highlights. Time to break down the best and worst of week eleven.

Winners: Indianapolis Colts

Since a close loss to the Tennessee Titans where Derrick Henry suffered a season ending injury, everything’s swung in the Colts’ favor. Sunday opened eyes to the possibility of a different team winning the AFC South. Both the Buffalo Bills offense and defense are touted as top tier and Indianapolis dominated them.

Outside of quarterback Josh Allen, Buffalo’s offense lacks a strong running game and the Colts used that weakness to their advantage. Allen barely threw 200 yards with two scores and two interceptions. While he was sacked once, Allen had a hard time finding receivers downfield and was under duress until a Colts victory was imminent.

Indianapolis’ offense was all anyone could talk about Sunday until the Los Angeles Chargers played (more on them later). Runningback Jonathan Taylor ran for four touchdowns and caught an additional score. Taylor’s first two touchdowns gave the Colts a double-digit lead early. It’s the first time in both franchise and league history anyone scored on the road five times.

Coach Frank Reich and his team had excuses to surrender after a brutal early season start. The defense is playing to last year’s levels. Despite an injury to guard Quinton Nelson, quarterback Carson Wentz eased more into the offense thanks to Taylor’s workload and the return of receivers Mo Alie-Cox and T.Y. Hilton. Finally, Indianapolis is over .500 for the first time this season and have a good chance at the division title because…

David Culley, Tyrod Taylor and the Houston Texans using the bye week to their advantage

…the one win Houston Texans stunned the football world by pummeling the Tennessee Titans. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was under pressure the whole game. He threw four interceptions and was sacked twice. The lone touchdown thrown was near the end of the third quarter, and Houston’s defense smothered any chance of momentum after.

Most fans and analysts will say Tennessee choked and overlooked competition, but there was a good chance the Texans could win this game. Defensive coordinator Lovie Smith didn’t have to worry about a running game with no Derrick Henry. The Titans average two and a half yards a carry since Henry’s season ending injury. Wide out Julio Jones wasn’t in the lineup. That meant Houston’s secondary could double cover A.J. Brown and Anthony Firkser.

On offense credit goes to coach David Culley and quarterback Tyrod Taylor using last week’s bye to fix parts of the game plan. Taylor played poor in a loss to Miami before the bye and said he could do better with more practice and easing back into schemes. While the offense was ok, it built confidence. Coach Culley needed this to keep his job and make sure his influence and coaching style grows with the team.

Davante Adams and Justin Jefferson

The Green Bay-Minnesota game was fun to watch, especially the second half. The highlights of round one in the divisional matchup featured two of the league’s best receivers.

Davante Adams caught seven passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns averaging 16 yards per catch. Adams’ play was a major reason the Packer offense briefly took a lead before Minnesota’s last possession. He’s the league’s best receiver despite constant double coverage and no solid number two wideout getting more attention.

Sophomore receiver Justin Jefferson had as good if not a better game than Adams. Jefferson’s eight catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns (both in the second half) gave the Vikings a comfortable lead and the ability to do anything against one of the league’s best defenses. Like Adams, Jefferson is one of the league’s best receivers and on the verge of breaking franchise records the great Randy Moss once held. Green Bay-Minnesota round two in Lambeau Field should be just as exciting on January second.

Jalen Hurts

The sophomore Eagles quarterback is progressing because coach Nick Sirianni wants the ball run more. It’s helped Hurts deliver on throws without constant pressure. He’s also a mobile quarterback who contributes in the running game, and on some Sundays that’s be better than when he passes.

Sunday’s home game against New Orleans is an example. Hurts scored 12 of 14 points on Philadelphia’s first two drives. He ran for a 24 yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to cement a double digit win.

A lot of fans and analysts lavish praise on the other sophomore quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert for good reasons, but Hurts is growing at a steady rate on a team still in re-build mode. He could be the most successful of the 2020 class if the Eagles continue to let him learn naturally without forcing him to throw.

The Los Angeles Chargers offense

Sunday night could be a pivotal turn in Chargers franchise history. Usually known as perenial losers in epic fashion, Los Angeles won a shootout against the Pittsburgh Steelers where they went from double digit lead to losing because of turnovers. The offense led by quarterback Justin Herbert sparked a comeback late in the fourth quarter.

Herbert became the first quarterback to throw over 350 yards, run for 90 yards and post a win. Austin Ekeler tried to match Jonathan Taylor’s touchdown performance, running for two scores and catching two of Herbert’s three touchdown passes. The game ball goes to Los Angeles’ offensive line that allowed two sacks to a battered Steeler defensive line but helped Herbert read the field especially on man coverage.

Last but not least, the Chargers receivers expanded Herbert’s use of the offensive playbook. Keenan Allen had a 100 yard game on 13 targets and Mike Williams had the game winning touchdown and final lead change. Coach Brandon Staley still needs to work on the defense but he’s maximizing potential with Los Angeles’ offense.

Losers: Rookie quarterbacks not named Mac Jones

The 2021 quarterback class may wind up being one of the best after this season. However none of the rookies outside of New England’s Mac Jones will have happy memories.

Zac Wilson and Justin Fields took too many hits and wound up with multiple injuries. The general managers of the New York Jets and Chicago Bears chose not to build offensive lines to protect their most valuable assets. It doesn’t help that coaches Robert Saleh and Matt Nagy gave the rookies the green light to start early in the season to take beatings while playing in poor offensive systems. One has to wonder if both quarterbacks develop terrible habits when they return. Here’s hoping both have a resurgence in year two.

Trey Lance and Davis Mills may not see the field the rest of the season unless it’s fourth quarter action where a lopsided win or loss is inevitable. The 49ers are back at .500 because Jimmy Garappolo is playing better and throwing accurate passes to at least three excellent receivers returning from injury or benching. San Francisco won’t start Lance if they’re in the playoff hunt. On the opposite end, Mills had a chance to prove he’s a starter Houston can turn to when Tyrod Taylor’s contract expires and DeShaun Watson is traded. Mills lost every game played and his stats aren’t starting worthy. He may be a backup the rest of his career.

Then there’s number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence, who probably wants to forget about his rookie season despite it not finishing. No one can blame him either. Coach Urban Meyer is still struggling to adjust to Jacksonville’s talent. While Lawrence could wind up as the best quarterback of the class with the most potential, it’s his first season with this many losses in any phase of his football career. He’s a true starter not getting whacked every other play. The Jaguars just have to add more to get back to playoff contention.

Rashawn Jenkins

Speaking of the Jacksonville Jaguars, they won’t win many games if their players pick fights against opposing teams.

Fourth year safety Rashawn Jenkins got frustrated early and decided to fight receiver Jauan Jennings. Jenkins’ dismissal hurt the Jaguars, and the defense gave up 30 points to a team coming off a Monday night home game traveling three different timezones.

Coach Meyer has a lot to clean up and work with but the issues earlier this season on the new coach setting a good example and not being careless comes into play. That’s important when veteran players make the same reckless decisions.

That blockbuster Khalil Mack trade between the Bears and Raiders

Back in 2018 when coach Jon Gruden decided to re-make the Oakland Raiders roster, he committed what many thought to be one of the most lopsided trades in contemporary NFL history involving pass rusher Khalil Mack going to the Chicago Bears for draft picks.

It’s a trade that when we look back three years later nobody won. The Bears gave up an astounding four draft picks (two first rounders included) while receiving two back (highest was a second rounder) in addition to Mack. Two of the picks Oakland/Las Vegas received aren’t on the team and one’s starting in place of a star receiver headed to prison. On the other end, Chicago’s second round pick in the trade Cole Kmet is rarely used by an inept offensive staff.

The Raiders’ best asset received from the trade is runningback Josh Jacobs, who hasn’t played well since a return from an upper body injury. Las Vegas started undefeated heading into October and is now at .500 after week eleven. This will be the third midseason collapse the team’s had, possibly missing the playoffs because the defense fell apart combined with drama off the field and a stagnant offense.

Meanwhile the Bears defense can’t stop 90 yard winning touchdown drives dating back to 2019 with or without Khalil Mack. Mack’s numbers have gradually gone down and it could be argued he hasn’t been the best player on Chicago’s defense after 2018. With little draft capital because of the trade, Chicago didn’t have a first rounder until this year, when they traded up with the New York Giants for Justin Fields (we know how that went, see above). The Bears are close to a total rebuild…and that requires trading Khalil Mack.

Russell Wilson

It’s beginning to look like Wilson hurried his recovery and came back earlier than he should have. Despite a 300 yard game from backup quarterback Colt McCoy, Wilson’s poor reading of the Arizona Cardinals defense is why Seattle walked away with their seventh loss of the season.

Two of Seattle’s first half drives resulted in Jason Myers field goals, and the Seahawks trailed at half-time 16-6. Those drives should’ve ended in touchdowns. After D.K. Metcalf bobbled a sure score, Wilson underthrew Freddy Swain at the one yard line. Swain had room to dive or reach the ball over the endzone line to tie the game at seven. Later on, Wilson couldn’t finish reads on second and third down, missing a wide-open DeeJay Dallas underneath for first and goal and taking more time off the clock to keep Arizona’s offense off the field. He threw into the endzone all three plays, and the third down pass flew out of bounds.

By the time Seattle scored a touchdown the Seahawks defense was exhausted with both starting cornerbacks injured. The Cardinal offense faced little resistance at the end.

The big question is what Seattle does with Wilson the rest of the season. The Seahawks have little chance of making the playoffs, but their franchise quarterback needs to start reading a field better and help Seattle not fully sink. We should have answers before Christmas.

Kellen Moore and the Dallas Cowboy offensive gameplan

Many analysts and fans will hype the Kansas City Chiefs’ return to being the best team in the AFC after Sunday’s home win against Dallas. There were good things Kansas City did on defense, notably Chris Jones’ three and a half sacks and the secondary intercepting quarterback Dak Prescott twice.

It’s easy to want that exciting Kansas City team back, but both teams were ugly on offense. The worst part was offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s gameplan. It was well known number one team receiver Amari Cooper wasn’t going to play. Dallas has the best runningback tandem in their conference and didn’t use them. When Ezekiel Elliott left with an injury, Tony Pollard took over and averaged seven yards a carry. The Chiefs’ run defense is the worst the league has seen in some time and yet Moore insisted Prescott throw the ball 43 times.

It got worse when sophomore receiver CeeDee Lamb left with a concussion in the second half. That doesn’t happen if Dallas establishes a strong and dominant running game behind an offensive line needing confidence with left tackle Tyron Smith not playing. It would’ve cut down Dallas’ turnovers, mistakes on the Chiefs’ side of the field and force more errors or turnovers from Kansas City. Even if the Cowboys wanted to save their best in a re-match, they cost themselves a chance to lower the Chiefs in the AFC standings.

NFL Week Ten Winners and Losers

Week ten followed up last week’s wackiness and unpredictable results with another headline filled day and more inconsistency from teams heading towards playoff berths. It’s been a year since there was a tie. Combined with a shutout for Seattle/Russell Wilson, and the Cleveland Browns losing by 38, there were a lot of firsts. Time to break down the winners and losers.

Winners: Josh McDaniels and the New England Patriots offense

The Patriots spent over $100 million to rise in the standings and get back to the playoffs. Their plan is working well before Thanksgiving.

Quarterbacks Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer combined for four total touchdowns. New starting runningback Rhamondre Stevenson ran 20 times for 100 yards and two scores. Free agent addition Kendrick Bourne almost had 100 yards receiving to go with one touchdown.

The offense gets better every week and credit goes to coordinator Josh McDaniels. He’s not just calling the plays, he’s finding ways to acclimate players to improve gameplans and help everyone figure out better roles.

A great example was discussed Sunday night when Tim Hasselbeck told sports analyst Scott Van Pelt the main concern for the Patriots offense is perimeter play, or simply, wide receivers consistently beating cornerbacks when running routes. Bourne was the receiver who played best and scored one of the touchdowns Jones threw. Yet he struggled to get open and not drop passes in San Francisco. McDaniels and his staff are shaping players like Bourne and tight end Hunter Henry (who scored twice and is having a career year) into premier threats defenses have to take serious in coverage. Expect teams to attract Josh McDaniels next offseason for head coaching jobs with the work he’s done.

Taylor Heinecke

Is Heinecke the new kryptonite against Tom Brady? A week many thought (including yours truly) Tampa Bay would steamroll the Washington Football Team after a bye week, Heinecke played one of his best games of the season. While he threw for under 200 yards and one touchdown, only six passes were incomplete and his passer rating was 110.4. Three of these four categories were better than Brady’s.

The defense is the main reason Washington has three wins, but Heinecke is doing his best to keep them in the playoff race. He has the same number of wins Russell Wilson, Jimmy Garappolo and Daniel Jones do. He’s also played quality teams in the AFC North, NFC South and AFC East week after week. While the 28 year old isn’t the best quarterback in the NFC East, he isn’t bad. Remember that if the Football Team stays in the playoff race by December.

Cam Newton’s Return for Carolina

The Arizona Cardinals had little chance of winning against Carolina without De’Andre Hopkins and Kyler Murray. Yet no one knew how big the return of Newton for the Panthers was especially when he was cleared to play.

Newton scored the first 12 of 14 points for Carolina en route to their lopsided victory against the top team in the NFL. He completed three of four passes in a sample size of how he’ll ease back into play.

The Panthers need every bit of help possible. If they need the first ever player who went to a super bowl, went to other teams, came back and scored throwing and running the ball in NFL history to sneak into the playoffs, so be it. It’ll be a fun topic to follow.

Losers: Anyone stuck with the Detroit-Pittsburgh game

Any market stuck with the 16-16 tie at Heinz Field Sunday probably received complaints the last 24 hours. While ties are rare, they’re long games and show both teams can’t win despite glaring mistakes by the opposition.

Whatever we think of near retirement Ben Roethlisberger, he’s still better than backup Mason Rudolph. Rudolph showed he won’t be an NFL starter outside of Pittsburgh. Despite his inept play, turnovers on offense and the loss of star defender T.J. Watt, the winless Detroit Lions couldn’t take advantage. Quarterback Jared Goff played hurt and Dan Campbell’s play-calling of running the football instead of key passing situations doomed any effort for a win. Kicker Ryan Santoso missed an extra point and what could’ve been the game winning field goal.

Detroit doesn’t play many teams under .500 the rest of the season. They’ve lost to two of the remaining four (who are division rivals). Seattle and Atlanta are the remaining two who have credible offenses. If they play spoiler to a hopeful playoff team like Cleveland, they have a chance. On the other end, the Steelers wish for Roethlisberger’s return from COVID-19 couldn’t come faster.

All highlighted afternoon and evening games

Matter of fact, throw the prime time and supposed noteworthy afternoon games into this category. Most of the country was either stuck with Cleveland-New England or Atlanta-Dallas for the early afternoon games. The former was so bad CBS pulled it for the second half of “the Backup Bowl” between New Orleans and Tennessee. Dallas lead by 33 after two quarters. Few audiences would find that second half entertaining.

The hyped matchup between Seattle and Green Bay featured terrible quarterback play and a total of three points before the Packers decided to run the ball and scored two touchdowns. Seattle was shutout for the first time in over a decade. The highlights were snowfalls in Lambeau Field and receiver DK Metcalf punching a defender after taunting. Not the game people wanted nor expected.

Last but not least, the Kansas City Chiefs tore a hapless Las Vegas Raiders team apart. DeSean Jackson’s fumble and Maxx Crosby’s unnecessary roughness ended any chance the Raiders had at a win. When the fourth quarter started, fans probably tuned in to Chris Rose on the NFL Network before heading to bed early.

Saints backup quarterbacks

While New Orleans lost by a combined four points the last two games, those who’ve watched their offense know that’s misleading. A battered Titans team pulled ahead by double digits after quarterback Trevor Siemian hit the 100 yard passing mark.

Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill was without two important players who can open the offense and put up similar numbers. He barely passed concussion protocol. Siemian has neither of these issues. Coach Sean Payton doesn’t trust Taysom Hill to start, even against an Atlanta Falcons team he won both games against last year.

Jameis Winston’s season ending injury means New Orleans is thinner on offense. They’re already second to last in passing yards. It could get worse with Buffalo coming into town Thanksgiving night.

NFL Week Nine Winners and Losers

Week nine stunned with upsets in every timeframe Sunday. From toss-ups to blowouts, the first Sunday of November provided the best and worst. Some teams are closer to the playoffs and others to next year’s draft. Time to break down who or what stood out.

Winners: Matt Ryan

In a game Atlanta lead by 18 points, Ryan did everything possible to secure a win. Anyone running the ball averaged one yard a carry, putting more pressure on the franchise quarterback to play perfect.

Ryan threw for 344 yards, two touchdowns and a 135.8 quarterback rating. He didn’t turn the ball over and led the game winning drive with one minute and one second left. Despite a defensive collapse, Atlanta found a way to win against a division rival in a pivotal point of the season. The Falcons are at .500 and still in the playoff race because their quarterback helped win another close game.

Cleveland Browns

Drama over the release of star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. dominated headlines before Sunday. Critics and analysts went off on quarterback Baker Mayfield’s poor play. The Cincinnati Bengals were favored to win the first Battle of Ohio. None of it mattered as the Browns steamrolled their division and state rivals 41-16.

Cleveland scored on the Bengals’ first possession when Denzel Ward intercepted sophomore quarterback Joe Burrow for a 99 yard touchdown return. Despite Tony Romo and Jim Nantz saying on the broadcast the Browns defense possibly playing tired after the score and then runningback Joe Mixon tying the game at seven, Cleveland’s offense did everything right. Runningback Nick Chubb returned for a 100 yard, two touchdown performance and Mayfield threw a 60 yard touchdown pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones to give the Browns a double digit lead.

Cleveland’s defense was porous a good part of the season but they didn’t play tired. They forced two fumbles on rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase and intercepted Joe Burrow twice. Every time the Bengals drove down the field, the Browns got a stop or a turnover.

It’s tempting to say this game could be an anomaly and the Browns will return to their previous ways the next two of three weeks (New England and Baltimore are two of their next three opponents), but with Chubb and Peoples-Jones back healthy, coach Kevin Stefanski’s unit has a chance to rise in the standings.

James Connor

If anyone watching or covering the NFL was told running back James Connor would have the most touchdowns after the first week of November, they’d be ignored.

Connor’s the main reason Arizona didn’t have to fear a San Francisco 49ers defense after an easy first quarter in Santa Clara. In a game with no De’Andre Hopkins nor Kyler Murray, Connor took pressure off veteran backup Colt McCoy. He ran for almost 100 yards, averaging four yards a carry and was the second leading receiver with 77. His three scores give him eleven total touchdowns for a runningback or receiver before week ten.

Both Murray and Hopkins could be back in a home game versus Carolina next Sunday, but they can play looser knowing Connor is the main guy if both aren’t at full health.

The Josh Allen versus Josh Allen matchup

Over 100 years of NFL history there had never been a player sacking, intercepting and tackling another player with the same name. Sunday’s Jacksonville v. Buffalo matchup was a first.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen had an awful day (more on him later), and the Jaguars’ Josh Allen was a big reason why. Allen sacked the Buffalo star once, had his first interception of the season and notched a career high eight tackles. He even deflected a pass in an upset over the highly favored Buffalo Bills.

If that’s not impressive enough, both Allen’s were seventh overall picks in their drafts one year apart. That’s something we may never witness again.

Losers: the Josh Allen MVP conversation

While the Josh Allen on defense had a historically great day, the other Josh Allen played terribly. It’s safe to say the quarterback Josh Allen is the lesser of the two, and it brings worry to the playoff picture for the Bills.

After a Monday night loss in Nashville, Buffalo’s offense hasn’t played well. They’ve lost two out of their last three and in the one win the Bills struggled against a porous Miami Dolphin defense until the fourth quarter.

Since the bye week, Buffalo has ran for less than 150 yards in two games. The offense relies on Allen to create plays downfield and to score every possession. Devin Singletary and Zach Moss are good runningbacks but defenses aren’t threatened by them especially with a shaky offensive line.

After next week’s game against the New York Jets, the Bills face another rough part in their schedule. If Allen and the offense struggle against a hapless Jets defense, the second half of the season could spiral fast.

Las Vegas Raiders Second Half Adjustments

If there’s an argument on why interim coach Rich Bisaccia should’ve coached one game, Sunday was proof. Runningbacks Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake averaged over five yards a carry and the Raiders led by three at halftime. Las Vegas had the ball to start the third quarter and should’ve finished the New York Giants on their first possession.

Instead Giants safety Xavier McKinney intercepted quarterback Derek Carr and ran for a touchdown, swinging the game in New York’s favor. New York didn’t trail the rest of the game. Carr finished the day throwing almost 50 passes for under 300 yards and the Raiders scored three points the second half.

The loss was worse when the Los Angeles Chargers’ won in Philadelphia hours later. The Chargers have the tiebreaker and Las Vegas plays a desperate Kansas City Chiefs team next Sunday night. That game will say more about the Raiders’ playoff chances. It also keeps the Giants alive in the playoff race, something most teams in the NFC aren’t thrilled on.

Green Bay Packers

Some sports analysts wrote this past week could’ve been the most toxic week in sports for 2021. While there’s a good case, it wasn’t a fun week up in Green Bay. Star quarterback Aaron Rodgers wasn’t just placed on the COVID-19 list, he made awful statements on quarantine and not being vaccinated before and during the season. At one point he compared the issue to Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights.

Backup Jordan Love, who’s expected to succeed Rodgers when he leaves the Packers after the season didn’t play well against one of the worst defenses in the league. Love has a lot to learn about playing regular seasons games as a starter just as Rodgers did his first few seasons in Green Bay. Despite the reasoning it’s not a good look especially when Love had the targets to throw to and couldn’t score more than seven points.

Seattle comes off their bye week headed to Green Bay with Russell Wilson and rookie receiver Dee Eskridge returning. If Rodgers doesn’t play because he chose Ivermectin over a vaccine, the Packers have a shot at the conference’s third playoff seed at best.

Washington Football Team

While Seattle received needed help to stay alive in the playoffs, the Football team had the opposite. They’re in last place after the Giants won at home.

Rivera’s team plays the remaining divisional games the last five weeks of the season, but it’s hard to argue they’ll be playoff-bound before that. Three of the remaining four games against teams not in their division are teams which could be a wild-card team at worst. They’ll play Tampa Bay, who also had a bye week and extra time to break down why they lost to New Orleans first. Something says that won’t turn out well.

NFL Week Seven Winners and Losers

Week seven in the NFL featured new records, injuries to star players and blowout upsets. A new team is number one in the AFC and the Arizona Cardinals are undefeated this late for the first time since 1974. There were many winners and losers for week seven, so it’s time to break down who or what stood out.

Winners: Tennessee Titans

For the second time this month, a team winning a close Monday night game blew out an AFC West opponent the Sunday after. Tennessee did any and everything they wanted in a route against the visiting Kansas City Chiefs.

The Chiefs challenged Seattle’s 2012-15 record of having a lead in over 60 regular season games before Sunday. Tennessee shut down any chance of Kansas City gaining an upper-hand in either half. MVP candidate Derrick Henry threw a touchdown to MyCole Pruitt on Tennessee’s first drive. A couple of Randy Bullock field goals and Ryan Tannehill touchdowns (one thrown to A.J. Brown) cemented a 27 point deficit the Chiefs couldn’t challenge.

The Titans defense deserves as much credit if not more. Free agent acquisition Bud Dupree got his first sack of the season. The unit recovered two fumbles and intercepted quarterback Patrick Mahomes III. They followed up on how Buffalo’s secondary played Kansas City weeks prior: physical with zone coverage, something Mahomes cannot read.

When the Chiefs tried to close the gap near the end, Mahomes was dragged down throwing a pass and the knee of defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons hit his front helmet. Mahomes was pulled after in a fast finish.

Despite losses Kansas City’s had over the years, they weren’t dominated where they didn’t lead in a game since 2017. Tennessee’s won two impressive games against quality opponents in seven days. The AFC is on notice.

Damien Harris & J.J. Taylor

The New England Patriots steamrolled the New York Jets for their first home win of the season. The running game anchored by Damien Harris got the offense active early and often. Harris got the second touchdown of the game, giving the Patriots a 14-0 lead.

Harris and J.J. Taylor ran for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, adding 18 points to an impressive day. While Taylor ran for short distance situations, the duo ran for 127 yards on 23 carries.

Coach Bill Belichick caught flack in previous weeks for shouldering rookie quarterback Mac Jones with more responsibilities and throwing 40 passes (average) a game. Hopefully we see the tandem of Harris and Taylor for a few weeks so New England gets back to .500.

Rookie Pass Catchers

Last year Justin Jefferson was the talk of the rookie class making an impact week-by-week. This year’s draft of wide receivers and tight ends seem better in every aspect.

Ja’Marr Chase is and should win the Rookie of the Year with how he’s not just passed Anquan Boldin’s rookie record for most receiving yards the first seven games played, but how he’s scored in almost every game and is one of the best number one threats a team could have. If you haven’t watched highlights of Chase (outside of Sunday’s dominant road win in Baltimore), find time to this week.

Coach Arthur Smith finally found how to use rookie tight end Kyle Pitts in the passing game and how Matt Ryan can get the ball to him. While Pitts didn’t score Sunday, he caught seven passes for 163 yards on eight targets. That averages over 23 yards per catch. The Falcon offense looks fantastic with Pitts being the main star outside of Calvin Ridley.

On the opposite end, Jaylen Waddle also caught seven passes on eight targets. The second leading receiver for Miami had 83 yards and was critical in Miami’s offensive comeback. He’s growing into the leading receiving role quietly and should find ways to have break-out games before the regular season ends. Since the Dolphins have one win, his development will be under the radar.

We hear too much about quarterback play that’s simply been watered down. Receivers deserve a lot more credit for the numbers put up and it’s time they get it.

Mike Evans, Todd Bowles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Organization

Speaking of receivers, we’ll remember Buccaneer receiver Mike Evans for catching Tom Brady’s 600th touchdown pass. Evans however had a game most receivers could only dream. He caught three touchdowns in the first half of a blowout game against the Chicago Bears. Despite the debacle of getting the iconic gameball back to Tom Brady, Tampa’s offensive co-captain has seven touchdowns this year with under 500 yards receiving. He’s the number one wideout on a deep offense. Tampa can repeat a Super Bowl run as long as they stay healthy.

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles showed why he landed a coveted job. Facing a rookie quarterback with no chance of winning, Bowles called aggressive plays and the Buccaneer defense obliterated Chicago’s pass game. The COVID-19 issue aside, the Bears benched a replacement right tackle by the fourth quarter. Rookie quarterback Justin Fields threw three interceptions, lost two fumbles and was sacked four times, two from an injured Jason Pierre-Paul. The defense had fun and dominated playing prevent defense the second half. It’s been discussed Bowles could return as a head coach and that topic will trend by November.

Last but not least, coach Bruce Arians shows why he’s a great head coach and why the Bears made a franchise changing mistake in hiring Marc Trestman instead of him. Arians may be coaching one of the best rosters a collective audience has watched in a long time. The best part is everyone’s held accountable. Tampa Bay’s gone from laughingstock sports franchise to franchise best 6-1 and one of the best and funnest teams to watch. At the very least they’re not…

Losers: Chicago Bears coaching staff

…the worst coaching staff assembled in 2021. With Adam Gase shunned from the league, Matt Nagy and his offensive (both versions of the word can apply here) staff again made an embarrassment of the Bears organization.

Rookie quarterback Justin Fields is Chicago’s most important asset (until their new stadium in Arlington Heights) and there’s nothing Nagy or the coaching staff can do to either develop or help him. Whenever an offensive series ends, Fields is alone on the bench. No coaches nor veterans come over to talk or help him understand what can be better by next possession. He’s expected to play under center instead of a shotgun formation, easily exposing him to more hits and cheap shots.

CBS analyst and former NFL MVP Boomer Esiason offered worrying analysis stating that, “Fields doesn’t seem to know how to read an NFL defensive scheme nor coverages.” That’s damning on a coaching staff that also can’t figure out how to fix the league-worst offensive line nor how to capitalize on an efficient running game.

Coach Matt Nagy said Sunday night he left Fields in, “for pride” down 35 points. No sane coach does or says either. Then Nagy announced early Monday he tested positive for COVID-19 in a press conference from the back of a van where wifi was faulty and the interview dropped after a scathing Mark Potash question. If McCaskey ownership can’t move on from this coaching staff at the end of the year, real problems will arise.

Miami Dolphins defense

Last year, coach Brian Flores had a top three defensive unit in the league. The Dolphins forced turnovers in almost every game and bullied opposing quarterbacks. This year it’s the second worst defense ahead of only the Washington Football Team. They’re allowing over 29 points and 410 yards a game.

Defense is where Flores shines. Miami’s marred by rumors of a DeShaun Watson trade but with how the defense plays, the focus is on the wrong side of the ball. They allowed a rookie tight end to have close to a 200 yard game. The Atlanta Falcons almost blew a double digit lead at the end but got the last offensive possession of the game. Younghoe Koo easily made the game winning field goal, and the Falcons aren’t a hard team to beat. Miami needs to fix their schemes fast before it gets worse.

Matt Rhule

The hiring of Rhule as head coach looks more of a bad hire for Carolina. The Panthers have lost four straight and while most will blame the inconsistent play of quarterback Sam Darnold, Rhule is the offensive minded coach working with him.

Everything went wrong for Carolina’s offense after their first possession ended in a three point lead. Sam Darnold threw just over 100 yards and was pulled for P.J. Walker late in the third quarter. The leading rusher averaged two yards a carry and the offensive line gave up six sacks. The New York Giants are one of the worst teams in the league and the Panthers on paper should’ve beat them. Given their schedule, it may be a while before Carolina wins another game. That’s disappointing after an undefeated start heading into October.

Philadelphia’s hiring of Nick Sirianni

It’s understandable former head coach Doug Pederson needed to go after what many viewed as throwing away a game and under-developing talent. The hiring of Nick Sirianni to replace Pederson made one failure worse.

Sirianni has no idea how to work the Eagles’ running game. Yes, Miles Sanders’ injury impacted the Las Vegas Raiders’ defensive gameplan, but the leading rusher is consistently quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hurts had over 200 yards passing because of a Raiders 30-7 lead in the fourth quarter.

The coaching staff is on the same road the Chicago Bears offense is on. The offensive line is poor, the receivers are average at best, and the play-calling hasn’t changed despite opponents catching on to the schemes. Tied for last with the New York Giants, one has to wonder if Nick Sirianni will be a one year coach. There doesn’t seem to be any improvement nor development for Jalen Hurts from last season.

NFL Week Six Winners and Losers

Week six was full of eye-opening play and revealed who is closer to being playoff-bound. On the opposite end, some teams are close to preparing for the offseason. Time to break down who or what won or lost the week.

Winners: Bengals coach Zac Taylor

Cincinnati’s won as many games before November they did last season. After a crushing loss to the Green Bay Packers last week where five field goals were missed in a row, coach Taylor had to help his kicker’s confidence and make sure the team moved on from a game they could be stuck on mentally. He succeeded in that Sunday.

The Bengals blew out the Detroit Lions and didn’t let up. While they led 10-0 at halftime, Taylor made the adjustments league analysts had criticized him for not doing the past two years. They added ten points to the lead in the third and 14 in the fourth. Detroit finally scored in the middle of the fourth quarter and added a touchdown with a two point conversion when the Bengals all but won.

This is a pivotal season for the third year head coach and he’s doing everything right, from helping with confidence to a winning record.

Henry Ruggs III

One of the top four Alabama receivers drafted in the past three years, Ruggs’ growth to be a number one wideout shines brighter. His touchdown gave the Raiders an early lead against the Denver Broncos. His three catch, 97 yard performance opened Las Vegas’ passing game and took pressure off tight end Darren Waller.

Ruggs has equaled his touchdown total from last year but his yards per game is almost double from 34.8 to 74.2. His yards after catch and targets increase almost every week. At the end of the season, he could be close to some of the top receivers in the league. Las Vegas is developing the receivers with franchise quarterback Derek Carr’s career year.

J.J. Watt

The Arizona Cardinals dominated a hobbled Cleveland Browns team. While the Cardinal offense had a highlight-filled day, the defense did a good job holding Cleveland’s offense under 400 yards. One of the undervalued free agent signings this past offseason is J.J. Watt. He’s playing like his old self before injuries slowed his career in Houston the past four years.

Watt recorded five tackles including a sack against one of the best offensive lines in the league (which is somehow struggling. More on them later). His pass defensed came at a critical time in the second half when the Browns rallied, and his leadership helps the unit be one of the better and more complete defenses in the league.

Comeback player of the year will go to a bigger name on offense but J.J. Watt deserves credit for having a bounce-back season on a team that’s undefeated after week six.

Matthew Wright and that awesome Curved Field Goal

The Jacksonville Jaguars won a game after 399 days. Their kicker Matthew Wright is a big reason why they’re heading into the bye with a win against the Miami Dolphins. Wright tied the game at 20 with a field goal that curved inside after a wide-right kick. He made the winning attempt at 53 yards with one second left…and one of the best U.S. sports broadcasters in Kevin Harlan called both. That’s a season highlight.

Losers: New York Giants

A win against New Orleans may be the top highlight of their season. Since the victory, New York has been outscored 82-31 despite a top ten ranking in passing yards.

Injuries are a factor on offense and one has to wonder if the concussion quarterback Daniel Jones suffered in a loss last week was one reason the three point lead and redzone trip to start was the best part of their game before a meaningless Eli Penny touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The defense is terrible and that’s an understatement. The only game the Giants held an opponent to under 21 points was a 17-14 home loss against Atlanta, where Adoree Jackson dropped a potential game winning interception. The Falcons scored ten points to win in the final four minutes.

The worst part is how undisciplined New York is. Receivers are in fights whether it’s practice or games. The duo of coach Joe Judge and general manager David Gettleman appear to be a failure of epic proportions for the original franchise.

Cleveland Browns’ AFC North lead chances

Injuries play a factor in a team’s success, which is why quarterback Baker Mayfield’s shoulder injury and runningbacks Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have valid excuses for scoring failures. However their top rated offensive line, the defense and coaching is responsible for collapses the last two weeks against quality opponents.

Baker Mayfield’s shoulder injuries are related to offensive line play. Mayfield was sacked five times against a defense missing it’s best pass rusher. The starting runningbacks are injured partly because the team can’t rely on the offensive line to protect the passer.

The defense is non-existent. While there were controversial calls in the loss to Los Angeles, they couldn’t defend the pass or get off the field. Arizona’s offense shredded Cleveland’s defense early, scoring on drives adding up to 69 and 78 yards, totaling just under ten minutes of playing time in the first quarter. The Browns’ offense had life in the beginning of the third quarter before Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins put the game away.

Worse yet is every team in the AFC North won Sunday. The Bengals and Ravens are the top two teams who don’t appear to slow down soon. Pittsburgh’s ugly win in overtime Sunday night gives them a share for third place with Cleveland. Coach Kevin Stefanski has to figure out how to get past a reeling Denver team by Thursday night.

Denver Broncos

Speaking of Denver, the undefeated start to their season is a distant memory. The Broncos are .500 after a non-competitive home loss to a Las Vegas Raider team mired in controversy and a head coach who’s an interim at best.

Coach Vic Fangio is renowned for defensive schemes. Earlier in the week there was talk of Denver cutting two of their cornerbacks to save salary cap space. The defense needs both cornerbacks after the Raiders torched them for over 400 yards combined offense. The running game produced two touchdowns and Derek Carr threw for two additional scores with a 134.4 quarterback rating.

The offense is worse. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater still looks off after a concussion two weeks ago. Pittsburgh took advantage of it and so did Las Vegas. Two of his three touchdowns thrown were in the fourth quarter down 21 points.

Denver and Cleveland play a pivotal Thursday night game that could determine which team has a better chance to make the playoffs. If the Broncos lose against an ailing Browns team after starting off undefeated, watch for coach Fangio to be back on the job market by postseason.

Brandon Staley and Renaldo Hill

Despite a shootout win against the Cleveland Browns in week five, coach Brandon Staley’s defense looks off. They started the season sharp but haven’t looked right this month. When the wins add up, it’s a concern. When there are losses, it’s a problem.

Don’t put most of the blame on the Chargers offense despite the performance. Quarterback Justin Herbert was sacked less and had fewer turnovers than Lamar Jackson. Yet the defense dug a hole early and Los Angeles trailed 17-0. Baltimore’s a quality team that won a close Monday night game previously, so defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill knew the scheme would be focused on run defense. You wouldn’t know with how the Ravens ran over 150 yards and three touchdowns.

Los Angeles can use their bye week to fix these issues. While the next five games after the bye are against shaky opponents, if the defense performs poorly Halloween afternoon, it’s reasonable to ask how far this team can go in the playoffs by early January.

2021-22 NBA Western Conference Playoff Picks

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver handled a troubled and bumpy 2020-21 season well. The result was an exciting playoffs that had one of the most watched conference and championship finals in years. This season we should see more sold out arenas and fans cheering for their favorite teams. When it comes to play, eight teams will stand out and make a push for deep playoff runs. Time to break down which teams in the western conference have the best shot to make the playoffs and advance past play-in rounds.

#1 Los Angeles Lakers

The easiest choice bolstered by the return of center Anthony Davis makes the Lakers an instant favorite. Los Angeles added more players that pushes them to the number one prediction. Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony give Frank Vogel’s team better starting guards and complimentary talent who can score against playoff bound opponents. They might reach the finals if most of the roster is healthy by May.

#2 Utah Jazz

They had the best record last year for good reasons. The Jazz just couldn’t win a critical playoff series. Newly signed center Hassan Whiteside will turn heads in Quin Snyder’s defense. The return of guards Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell puts many teams in difficult positions to guard especially when they drive to the paint or shoot three’s consistently. Forwards Rudy Gay, Eric Paschall, Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic should be consistent on scoring and defense. Just don’t expect them to cruise to a number one seed like last year.

#3 Denver Nuggets

Another team that performs well in the regular season but struggles at times in the playoffs, Denver has better talent and depth to compliment league MVP Nikola Jokic compared to the last two years.

The Nuggets traded for Aaron Gordon mid-season and he disappointed in the playoffs. Both the team and Gordon believe last season was due to lack of chemistry during the playoffs, and hope this year is better.

A full season of Aaron Gordon helps not only the forward depth but it gives time to both offense and defense to work with each other in better ways. PJ Dozier and Jeff Green should have an easier time playing in games whenever Gordon leaves. Jamal Murray will return some time this season and it’ll be a plus to the guard position that is starting Monte Morris at point beginning of the year. Bones Hyland comes to a team desperate at shooting guard. He could see a lot of minutes in the first half of the season.

#4 Dallas Mavericks

Jason Kidd has much to work with regarding a talented roster that failed to win a first round series up two games to none against the Los Angeles Clippers. Kidd’s biggest test is helping team and league star Luka Doncic take the next step to greatness and closer to winning a championship. Whether that involves trading or helping Kristaps Porzingis play his role to avoid team conflict.

Star Kristaps Porzingis helps ease pressure off Luka Doncic in the regular season, but he must play better in important games and series. It cost the Mavericks a 2-0 lead against the Clippers mid-2021.

Dallas made sure to re-sign free agents such as Tim Hardaway Jr. but didn’t add pivotal players to take pressure off the franchise stars. That shows Dallas’ front office wants coaching to be the difference and why the team can make it to the second round of the playoffs. Thankfully they’re the best team in a weak Southwest division.

#5 Golden State Warriors

Last year was going to be better than the 2019-20 season no matter what happened. James Wiseman was one of the top three rookies in the league and was coveted in trade talks. This year the Warriors get shooting guard Klay Thompson back at some point. The trio of Thompson, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will be a threat heading into the playoffs. In fact, Vegas gives the Warriors fourth best odds to win the championship.

Warriors seventh overall pick Jonathan Kuminga (00, white) should blossom into a multi-faceted and reliable player, even if a lot of his growth is after this season. He’ll help the Warriors a lot early in the season with franchise star Klay Thompson still out.

While Thompson will return middle of the season, Golden State will be working on their depth, role players and development of new stars. First round picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody should contribute when needed. It helps older players such as Andre Iguodala develop and tutor the rookie and sophomore players to take the next steps, playing with franchise stars and learning how to play under pressure in critical games. Finally, Otto Porter Jr. is an upgrade at forward in case Green or Andrew Wiggins can’t play or need rest.

The Warriors will be a threat in the second half of the season, so expect the team to struggle the first few months. Should they finish in the middle of the western conference, they have a good chance of reaching the conference finals.

#6 Los Angeles Clippers

Franchise star Kawhi Leonard won’t play the regular season and that means the Clippers will be in the bottom parts of playoff predictions. All four of their draft picks in the first two rounds were guards, three of them shooting.

Both coach Ty Lue and forward Paul George have to keep the Clippers at .500 or better before Kawhi Leonard returns for a possible playoff run. Guard play is crucial for that to happen.

The picks will be pivotal when Reggie Jackson and Eric Bledsoe need rest. Terance Mann is good depth to replace Bledsoe, but Justise Winslow is a question mark at pointguard. Los Angeles did secure forward and center depth with last season’s trades. Coach Ty Lue can find adjustments even early in the season. Still, without their main star the Clippers could have a turbulent time if they’re inconsistent monthly.

#7 Portland Trailblazers

They don’t have last year’s depth but with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum leading, they’ll clinch playoff berths late in the season. New coach Chauncey Billups could play rookie Greg Brown III early since Robert Covington is the best forward on the team. A full season from Jusuf Nurkic helps a team that was terrible on defense most of last season. There aren’t many solid choices left for the playoffs, so Portland’s a best bet to clinch a spot near the bottom and win a play-in game.

#8 Memphis Grizzlies

Year three of coach/star player duo Taylor Jenkins and Ja Morant should not disappoint. Both have grown since arriving to the Grizzlies. Jenkins’ team reached the play-in round and advanced to the playoffs, winning one game against the Utah Jazz and earning respect from fans and analysts in the league. This year will build off that more, but Memphis could struggle at times with a conference full of talented teams and veteran roster depth even in their own division. It’s possible they’re a much higher seeded team next year, since they’re still learning.

After a forgettable season in Atlanta, Kris Dunn has a fresh start in Memphis where he can be relied on to play defense and hold leads when star Ja Morant needs rest. Holding leads is something the Grizzlies need to improve on against quality opponents.

The acquisitions of Kris Dunn and Steven Adams solidifies better defense and depth when needed. Memphis knew additional height and talent was a must and drafted a forward and a center with their two first round picks.

Memphis has more talent than San Antonio and has younger players and additional height to contend and move past Phoenix. Don’t be surprised if they win play-in games against both teams to clinch the eighth seed.

Play-in teams that will miss the playoffs: Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs

Last year’s conference predictions: 6-2

NFL Week Five Winners and Losers

Week five in the NFL had a lot of thrills, surprises and hair-pulling moments. Audiences are finding out which teams could be contenders and which ones could be one and done if they reach the playoffs. Despite a lot of storylines off the field with some coaches and players, Sunday’s games revealed what to expect from next week to even next year.

Winners: Tom Brady

All the years, games and highlights we’d seen of Brady there was never a stat-line where he threw five touchdowns and over 400 yards. Not until yesterday. The Miami Dolphin defense was competitive for one half but broke down and Tampa Bay’s receivers ran whatever routes they wanted.

What’s more special is what happened to Brady mid-game. Reports on CBS and after the victory said the 44 year old quarterback injured the thumb on his throwing hand. When he wasn’t passing touchdowns to Mike Evans or Antonio Brown, he was icing his thumb on the bench.

We’ve often heard how once-in-a-lifetime Tom Brady’s career is. Three of his first five starts he’s thrown four touchdowns and over 300 yards in. Only a handful of quarterbacks have done that. George Blanda looked haggard and somewhat reliable when he was in his mid-40s. Brady could win an MVP award and shatter more of his own records this year at 44.

Buffalo Bills

It was fair to wonder if Sean McDermott’s team were pretenders heading into Sunday night’s game in Kansas City. They pummeled three awful teams and lost their first game of the season to a one and done Pittsburgh squad. After Sunday night, this team is the best in the AFC.

Buffalo’s opening drive was eight plays and 75 yards, ending with a touchdown run by quarterback Josh Allen. The Bills’ offensive line allowed no defender to tackle Allen that play. Kansas City’s defense was alert for three quarters, not blitzing a quarterback many see as a legitimate dual threat. They couldn’t stop the running game but didn’t need to when receiver Stefon Diggs and tight end Dawson Knox were open all night. The best highlight was Allen hurdling over L’Jarius Sneed on a wet and slippery grass field. He finished the night with three touchdowns, over 300 yards passing and a 139.1 quarterback rating.

The Bills’ defense aced their first true test of the season. The secondary limited Patrick Mahomes’ favorite targets Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. They played physical with receivers instead of the track and field style used in last year’s games. Mahomes was intercepted twice, one of which from Micah Hyde was returned for a touchdown. Greg Rousseau recorded the other turnover and one of the two sacks on Mahomes in the game.

What sets the Bills apart from a lot of teams is their depth from defensive line to quarterback. NBC’s Cris Collinsworth pointed out how backup Mitchell Trubisky can run the same type of offense if Josh Allen’s injured. Buffalo’s defensive front was eye-opening and the network’s graphic calculated at least nine players recording over 30 snaps (or plays) the whole game.

Last but not least, their schedule eases up. After a clash next Monday night in Nashville, the Bills have a bye week, followed up by an easy divisional home game and two road games against the Jaguars and Jets. They could clinch a playoff spot before Thanksgiving.

Marquez Calloway

While he isn’t having the same year Bengal’s star receiver Ja’Marr Chase is, Calloway’s production is growing and he’ll be a fun receiver to watch. The undrafted sophomore is averaging just over 17 yards a catch with Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith not playing. That’s not an easy mark to accomplish. Two of his three touchdowns this season were scored yesterday.

Calloway lived a receiver’s dream catching a Hail Mary touchdown pass to end the first half in a road game versus the Washington Football Team. That score gave the New Orleans Saints a 20-13 lead, and they didn’t trail the rest of the game. His second touchdown came minutes into the fourth quarter to cement an eleven point lead, effectively ending the game and helping the Saints receive their third win of the season.

Last year Tre’Quan Smith turned into a reliable option for Drew Brees when Michael Thomas was injured. It’s possible Sean Payton can help Calloway grow into a dangerous, reliable third option for quarterback Jameis Winston.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens have yet to play their Monday night home game but they’ve already won week five. Cincinnati and Cleveland lost gut-wrenching games yesterday, dropping to 3-2. The Steelers aren’t a threat to the divisional race yet despite their win against Denver. The worst the Ravens could do Monday night is lose against a one win Colts team.

Think of it this way; Baltimore’s chances of winning the AFC North come from beating their division rivals, and those are six games yet to be played. Even if there’s a three-way tie, Baltimore’s chances of splitting with any of those three teams are none. They’ve shown who’s better in every rivalry.

Losers: Special Teams

There hadn’t been ten missed field goals AND extra points since the extra point distance was made longer in 2015. If there’s anything that stood out in week five, it’s the missed chances teams had to win or contain leads.

All three extra points in the first half of the New England-Houston game were missed. Chargers kicker Tristan Vizcaino missed two extra points, one in each half. Mason Crosby and Evan McPherson missed five straight field goals before Crosby kicked a game-winner in Cincinnati.

It wasn’t just field goals or extra points. Matt Gay committed two illegal procedure kicks out of bounds on kickoffs, keeping Seattle alive late in the game Thursday. Cameron Johnston had a blocked punt…from the back of his lineman’s helmet. Byron Pringle fumbled early Sunday night to give the Bills a second straight possession.

Thankfully the league doesn’t see these mistakes as a trend week-to-week. Week six should be a smooth time for this side of the ball.

Davis Mills

Usually a rookie quarterback who throws the first three touchdowns of his career and a 141.7 rating against a Bill Belichick defense doesn’t wind up in this section. However, when you lead 22-9 in the second half and allow an opponent to come back by playing mediocre football, the offense will face a lot of questions and criticism.

It’s not fair to say a rookie quarterback in his third start should get the majority of the blame for the offense stalling and blowing a 13 point lead. Kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn had his chances and missed. The Texans run defense broke down. However Mills is the leader of Houston’s offense and knew he had to close the game out running the ball or using play-action passes, not gambling downfield and going three and out against one of the league’s best coaches. The special teams may have given the Patriots hope, but it was Mills’ job to slam the door on a comeback and he failed to.

Urban Meyer

For any long-time NFL fans, ask yourself when was the last time a rookie head coach lost a locker room four or five games into a season. Chances are it’s really hard to pick one. Adam Gase, Greg Schiano, Cam Cameron and Matt Patricia at least kept interest for 12 games or even a full season before they epically flamed out.

Halloween is three Sundays away and the Jaguars players are not only quitting on plays (Steve Smith Sr. even acknowledged they changed nothing in their Thursday night loss to Cincinnati), but they’re laughing at the head coach after he leaves and finishes talking with them.

It worsened when Urban and number one pick Trevor Lawrence disagreed on play-calling in a blowout home loss to Tennessee in post-game interviews. Meyer’s not only far apart when it comes to plays with the franchise star, he’s lost with veteran players in the locker room and has been lectured to re-build trust with an owner who may or may not know what he’s doing.

At least Nick Saban avoided linebacker Zach Thomas’s fists in his tenure with the Miami Dolphins. Meyer might not have that luck.

Las Vegas Raiders

No team in the league could’ve had a worse week on and off the field. Regardless of what you think about the Urban Meyer situation, it pales in comparison to Jon Gruden’s.

Let’s start with on-field issues. Derek Carr’s career almost ended on a quarterback sneak. Thankfully he’s ok. Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields however didn’t feel the love. The Raider defense targeted Fields early, resulting in three unnecessary roughness penalties. Fans not wearing the silver and black should be relieved the rookie quarterback didn’t suffer a serious injury. Backup Bears runningbacks Khalil Herbert and Damien Williams averaged over four yards a carry against the defense, including a touchdown. A Darnell Mooney reception on third and 13 doomed a comeback.

Former franchise star Khalil Mack had a sack and seven pivotal tackles against the Vegas offense. Josh Jacobs ran over three yards a carry in his return from injury. The team didn’t look ready to play a home game against a .500 Bears team transferring play calling duties from head coach to offensive coordinator.

The off-field issues are more concerning. Coach Gruden has over five years left on his current contract. He won’t be fired anytime soon. It’s possible some players will want out or try to throw games by not playing well, elongating an already slow re-build. Then Raiders owner Mark Davis proved his father Al right again claiming he knew of no such racial issue involving Gruden despite his disappointment.

The bigger problem ahead is what else is in the 2,000 emails the Wall Street Journal leaked out involving the Washington Football Team and what is still buried. Until more is revealed, Gruden, Davis and the NFL need to be held accountable.

NFL Week Four Winners and Losers

After one of the most memorable weeks in football concluding September, the first week of October followed up with a highlighted sequel. Some teams are still undefeated or winless, distancing themselves from those trying to figure out how to have favorable matchups. Time to break down what and who stood out most.

Winners: Dallas Cowboys

Dallas was favored to beat an undefeated Carolina Panthers team that didn’t have their best offensive player and standout defensive rookie. The offense and defense made the necessary adjustments, slamming Matt Rhule’s team in the second half.

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott threw under 200 yards and four touchdowns, three in the third quarter. The runningbacks Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard both averaged almost seven yards a carry. Elliott ran over 140 yards and a touchdown. Dallas’ offense may be one of the most balanced and dangerous in the league.

The defense deserves a lot of credit for how the team is alone in first place. Cornerback Trevon Diggs had two interceptions and the front seven sacked Panther quarterback Sam Darnold five times. Dan Quinn’s made the impact and worked well with younger players trying to find their way in the league, and it’ll pay off come playoff time.

Dallas’ biggest test could be in Kansas City November 21st. It’s possible this team could lock up a division title by that time if both the offense and defense keep playing like yesterday.

Taylor Heinicke

Credit the Atlanta Falcons for choking away a great Matt Ryan performance. Their defense can’t stop anybody in second halves. However Washington quarterback Taylor Heinecke played better than Ryan when it mattered most.

The Football Team’s defense isn’t close to last year’s credibility and that means the offense has to score more than 16 points to win. Despite a back and forth game, Washington trailed by eight at one point and many expected the Falcons to win. Heinicke wasn’t having it.

He threw the first touchdown with four minutes remaining to Terry McLaurin, one of the best receivers anyone can watch. The two point conversion failed, preserving Atlanta’s lead. After a bumbled drive for coach Arthur Smith’s offense, Heinicke wasted no time. He threw a 30 yard catch-and-run pass to J.D. McKissic, who dove into the endzone for another lead change, this time ensuring a win.

The comeback doesn’t happen without the backup quarterback playing his best football when it matters, getting both runningbacks and receivers involved in the passing game. Ron Rivera’s team has ways to go but they’re comfortably in second place.

Arizona Cardinals

Last week on Pro Talk, Wesley Woods and I discussed who the best team in both the NFC, specifically the west was. Most people had the Los Angeles Rams as the best. That’s not true after Sunday.

Last year Arizona had an eye-opening three straight wins to start the season, but collapsed because of inconsistent play and injuries to important players. They’re not in that situation after week four.

Rams coach Sean McVay was 8-0 against the Cardinals since his hiring. The first loss in five years comes at a time when everyone thought Los Angeles was the best. Arizona did any and everything they wanted in a pivotal road win. Quarterback Kyler Murray threw for two touchdowns and posted a 120.3 rating against what’s considered the best defense in the league.

The Cardinal offense gets a lot of credit because of their playmakers but defensive coordinator Vance Joseph deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done in less than two years. Los Angeles quarterback Matthew Stafford was intercepted in the first half and forced passes a veteran shouldn’t throw, frustrated by receivers not getting open. Joseph’s defense controlled the pace and made sure Darrell Henderson Jr. wouldn’t have a career game with a double digit lead on the line.

When Arizona went undefeated after week four a decade ago the team finished up 1-11 because of poor offensive performances. This team won’t fall apart with the talent and leadership. Until the Cardinals host the Green Bay Packers late this month, it’s possible they stay undefeated or in first place. Just don’t tell those who think the Rams took a step forward after beating Tom Brady that.

Mac Jones

The Tom Brady-Bill Belichick storyline even through postgame was what everyone wanted to watch, hear and talk about. It’s all football fans focused on, and we got great reactions. Yet the quarterback who stood out was the New England rookie who would have the storylines if kicker Nick Folk didn’t hit the left upright, ensuring Tom Brady’s victory in Foxborough.

Mac Jones tied a Brady record with the Patriots: 19 straight completions. He out-dueled his predecessor throwing for more yards, a better passer rating and two touchdowns. There were questions on how Jones could handle throwing passes more than 40 times every week. Coach Belichick had to let his quarterback play aggressively and they nearly won their first home game with that gamble.

Regarding the other rookie quarterbacks, we don’t know how they’ll perform in pivotal games against playoff opponents a few months from now. We do know that New England has one that can and put them in a position to win.

Losers: Anyone/thing associated with the Houston Texans offense

Last week any professional football fan with a pulse criticized the Chicago Bears for a league worst offensive performance unheard of since 2009. This week the Houston Texans wanted to challenge how bad it could get and they succeeded for two quarters.

The Buffalo Bills defense looks as good if not better than their 2018 and 2019 seasons. They put a beating on the Miami Dolphins in the second week of the season, of which Miami has yet to recover. Houston had a week and a half to prepare for the defense and came up with these stats in the first half: two interceptions, -23 net passing yards, eight total yards and one first down. The second half was better but not much as Buffalo won by 40.

Tyrod Taylor couldn’t come back at a better (or worse) time. The AFC South is terrible this year and most of that is because…

Randy Bullock

…the teams we thought would make the playoffs aren’t showing up and finishing games. It’s understandable the Tennessee Titans didn’t have their best two receivers Sunday against the Jets. The offense did play well despite that and a porous offensive line.

This is where coaching during the week comes into focus. Special teams knows if the team’s best playmakers are out, pressure falls on them to deliver in every phase of the game. Punting the ball deep in opponent territory helps the defense. Kicking field goals and receiving punts help the offense. Randy Bullock was perfect until overtime when the Titans needed a tie to remain over .500.

The kick went left. The Titans are 2-2 with two one win teams behind. At least they play the Texans twice.

Philadelphia Eagles

Fans and analysts wasted no time bombarding the internet about how the great Kansas City offense came back and the Chiefs snapped their two game losing streak. The takeaway from their game against the Eagles is how bad Philadelphia’s played two games in one week. They didn’t just lose. They were routed.

Too much credit was put on Philadelphia’s defense the first two weeks of the season. Atlanta can’t run the ball and San Francisco lost three runningbacks. Competent offenses show the Eagles can’t defend the pass nor stop the run. That said, the offensive gameplan from coordinator Shane Steichen was awful.

Kansas City’s defense may be worst in the league at stopping the run. Philly’s leading rusher was Jalen Hurts averaging five yards a carry. The next leading rusher carried the ball three times. Steichen’s gameplan involved Hurts throwing the ball nearly 50 times. The Eagles and Chiefs had multiple lead changes in the first half, and the game was close until the third quarter.

Philadelphia should have kept Patrick Mahomes and company on the bench for longer drives rather than using a pass-first mindset. The result was a highlight day for Kansas City, who had their first blowout win since last November.

San Francisco 49ers strength and conditioning coach Dustin Perry

There’s nowhere like San Francisco where talented players are piling up on injured reserve. Every game the 49ers have played at least three players finish the day going to the locker room before seeing the final score.

This week the unfortunate players were starting quarterback Jimmy Garappolo, defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and starting left tackle and offensive captain Trent Williams. All injuries were revealed in different ways. No one knew Garappolo was injured until San Francisco’s offense came back onto the field. Kinlaw suffered his injury tackling the grass instead of a speeding Russell Wilson, and Trent Williams carted to the locker room after injuring his shoulder on a Seahawks blitz.

Injuries have been a common theme in coach Kyle Shanahan’s tenure and Perry’s been on staff since his arrival. If the 49ers want to curb major injuries, they need to cast out their strength and conditioning staff. One full season of healthy players out of five is a red flag for any football team.

2021-22 NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Picks

The offseason flew fast. The Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions are back and that means predicting which four teams in each can make the playoffs. The eastern conference has won the Stanley Cup the last two years. The effects included teams like the New York Islanders and Rangers to add better roster depth. The Florida Panthers added defense and drafted better. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes are close to taking the next step. The Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals, two teams known for consistency, may be fading or are close to a re-build if neither return to the conference finals. It’s time to break down which of the four in each division can make the push back to the playoffs for 2021-22.

Atlantic

Florida Panthers

As was written early summer, the Florida Panthers are a solid candidate to reach the Stanley Cup finals in 2021-22. They re-signed key restricted free agents such as Sam Bennett and have a goalie in Spencer Knight to lead them in a deep postseason run. The benefit for the Panthers is they’re back in a division where four teams are still in a re-build process and they can play the rest of the league. Rivalry with the Lightning aside, Florida will be an exciting team to watch because they’re peaking at the right time. Don’t be surprised if they win the Atlantic title.

Boston Bruins

At first look, the Bruins aren’t a team that could be this high in predictions. Yet their offseason moves were the right ones in every category. They started by re-signing Taylor Hall, a former MVP who anchored a better second line the latter half of the regular season, then signed former captain Nick Foligno for depth.

Boston had a weakness at center depth. They added some starting with former Golden Knight Tomas Nosek, retaining Curtis Lazar and Charlie Coyle, and brought in Erik Haula. Boston made major goaltending changes not re-signing Tuukka Rask, Dan Vladar or Jaroslav Halak. The only goaltender on the roster they wanted to keep was Jeremy Swayman, who could anchor the net in five years. The Bruins signed Buffalo goaltender Linus Ullmark to be their undisputed starter. Ullmark was solid but couldn’t stay healthy on a terrible Sabres team. A 180 degree change in culture, trust and team chemistry is what he needs in order to lead the Bruins back to the playoffs.

Linus Ullmark was the reason Buffalo won as many games they did. Now he has the chance to impact a playoff contending team in Boston.

Boston could win the Atlantic with these roster changes. General manager Don Sweeney saw the last two seasons as regression after winning the conference in 2019. The bold strategy of replacing veteran presence on defense, goaltenders and adding scoring depth should pay off in a full season and (hopefully) no COVID-19 shutdowns.

Tampa Bay Lightning

This pick is self-explanatory. The Lightning will find a way to be top three of their division but step up and show why they’re back-to-back champions in the playoffs. Unless the roster suffers serious injuries, Tampa should be the favorite to go back to the finals until a team in their conference is fed up and dethrones them. That’s more likely than missing a playoff berth.

Toronto Maple Leafs

They’d be higher but two factors place them in this spot; the three teams above have more seasoned veterans, better coaching and deeper rosters. If/when they play the Leafs, don’t be surprised if the trio wind up with a winning record versus Toronto.

The second reason is more important. We don’t know what to expect from this team after a mouth-dropping 3-1 series collapse against the Montreal Canadiens. Sheldon Keefe could be on the hot-seat. Team confidence was challenged when third line star Ilya Mikheyev admitted a few weeks ago he tried to find a trade out of Toronto. Not a good look weeks before the regular season starts.

Jack Campbell will be the starter in net for Toronto this season. While winning it was a challenge, it’ll be harder to fend off Petr Mrazek if his play dips.

John Tavares’ return helps team chemistry the later 2021-22 goes. The additions of Ondrej Case and Petr Mrazek are good for depth and veteran leadership. Jack Campbell becomes the undisputed starter in net after Frederik Anderson was traded. Auston Matthews will score at least 30 goals this season, but all questions start with advancing past the first round of the playoffs…especially if they play the Boston Bruins.

Metropolitan

Carolina Hurricanes

Carolina re-vamped their roster, something that should alarm a lot of teams. They moved on from all three of their starting goaltenders for Frederik Anderson and Antti Raanta, two established veterans. They traded for Ethan Bear, signed Tony DeAngelo and Derek Stepan, and won the restricted free agency bid for Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Despite some departures, the Hurricanes are in win now mode.

Coach Rod Brind’Amour has led Carolina to multiple playoff berths and a division title. A lot of the Metropolitan lacks the charisma and depth to win not just the division but a seven game series. They’re tougher from last year’s central division matchups against Florida, Nashville and Tampa Bay to play better and close out games against weaker opponents.

New York Rangers

If there was any team to challenge for the conference championship, it’s the one in Madison Square Garden. The firing of David Quinn for Gerard Gallant turned heads. Then the Rangers traded for Ryan Reaves, Sammy Blais, Barclay Goodrow and signed Jarred Tinordi.

Ryan Reaves is well known for his fighting and intimidating opponents. Most expect he’ll fight Capitals pest Tom Wilson opening night. That game could say a lot about how the Rangers play this season.

The Rangers have three stars in Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Kaapo Kakko, all on the first line. New York needed better coaching and depth to create scoring opportunities and physical play. They traded and signed the right players the same way Tampa Bay did after their abrupt first round exit in 2019.

Don’t be surprised if the Rangers are one of the best teams in the NHL this year. Coach Gallant’s rapid success with the Golden Knights in 2017 could be replicated with a roster that needed finishing touches.

New York Islanders

While the Rangers have been the talk of New York and the hockey world, Long Island fans are excited to see their team in a brand new building. Barry Trotz’s unit (minus Jordan Eberle) is re-signed and ready to work together more this season. Lou Amoriello signed Zach Parise, a player who impressed during their tenure in New Jersey.

One of the best American players of his time, Zach Parise goes to New York after a buyout in Minnesota. The fresh start serves both sides well.

The Islanders are consistent on defense but added chemistry with Kyle Palmieri should produce better scoring chances. Richard Panik and Parise were right moves for added veteran leadership. Ilya Sorokin could get more playing time against division rivals.

Philadelphia Flyers

The absences of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the first six weeks and a fading Capitals team is enough to question who else in the division sneaks into the playoffs and steals a series. New Jersey is in re-build mode and Columbus is in decline. Philadelphia could be that fourth team.

The Flyers defense last year was putrid. Former players Brian Boucher and Keith Jones went off multiple times during their five plus goal losses to the New York Rangers and Islanders. General manager Chuck Fletcher saw enough to sign and trade for multiple players on defense. There’s nowhere to go but up.

Martin Jones is an interesting backup choice in goal behind Carter Hart, who needs to improve and show development his third year. For Hart to improve, the defense should tighten up. Signing Keith Yandle and Rasmus Ristolainen are good starts. Yandle plays hard despite his age and Ristolainen needed a new scene outside of Buffalo. The acquisition of Ryan Ellis gives the Flyers a prime, number one defenseman alongside Ivan Provorov. The offense also benefits and should show on the power-play. Philadelphia added Cam Atkinson and Derick Brassard for forward and center depth.

Once touted as the next Jonathan Quick, San Jose Sharks goaltender Martin Jones went from two wins short of winning the Stanley Cup to goalie punchline around the league. His lack of development in Northern California contributed to his decline. Now a backup in Philadelphia, Jones needs to prove he’s worth a roster spot and a reliable option behind starter Carter Hart.

They’re underdogs to sneak into the playoffs but Alain Vigneault and his staff believe this season shouldn’t repeat last year. It helps they play more than seven teams and not worry about New York every other night.

Last year’s Canadian and eastern division predictions records: 5-3